Tube Tied: The Decline and Fall of the American Soap Opera
For at least the last thirty years (and probably more) my mom has been a faithful viewer of The Young and the Restless. For several years in there I was too - my earliest memories involve eating the peel from her apple while watching the show. Without fail, my mother has taped every episode, even if she's watching it live, in case she is called away. Great woe awaited the daughter of hers who accidentally interfered with its taping on the VCR every once in awhile - though always the result of a mistake my mother acted as if I had deliberately planned the ruin of her day. Vacations are organized with an eye to how my mother will get to catch up on her show. Nowadays I'll only see glimpses of it when I'm home, and not much has changed: Victor is still endlessly remarrying and divorcing Nikki, Jack Abbott still has an abundance of sandy blond hair, and there is always, always, a rhinestone somewhere in the frame.
I'll admit that despite all the wooden acting, the stilted dialogue, the unbelievable marriages and remarriages and devil possession plots, I did, for a while, succumb to the hypnotic power of the soap opera. There is something reassuring about them, the same people there every day, without fail, missing only a few major holidays a year, never changing and always predictable. And I can see, very well, that they broke up the monotony of housewivery for many women. Moreover, soap operas have occasionally displayed a penchant for progressivism: most recently, they've been introducing gay and lesbian characters with little judgment, and more than a little reverence.
I wonder, though, lately, whether soaps will survive my mother's generation - and certainly, even for white, middle class women, they aren't the kind of universal touchstone they once seemed to be. Granted that I no longer live in the suburbs and probably never will again, I don't seem to know any women my age, homemakers or working outside the home, who watches them, or at the very least, no one who will admit to having the time or the inclination for it. Statistically-speaking, the ratings have been going down for some time. Guiding Light has itself been cancelled. Last year, Days of Our Lives fired two of its oldest and most well-known stars because NBC was no longer willing to pay their salaries.
Obviously a lot of this has to do with the gradual downfall of network tv, the proliferation of DVRs and other recording devices, and bored and lonely people's newfound salve in the internet. There is no point, after all, in getting invested in fake people when you can simply log on to Facebook and watch the vicarious drama scroll by in the status updates. If you want narrative and companionable fictional characters these days, your sources aren't as limited as they were before.
Part of me feels it's cultural, too. I'm not going to argue, by any means, that women no longer need escapism - the looming shadow of the Sex and the City empire kills that argument immediately. And women still religiously watch one-hour dramas in prime time, though Grey's Anatomy does seem like small-screen cinéma vérité when you set it next to Passions, doesn't it?
But I was wondering, as I watched Peggy Olson tell her secretary that she's "going to be fine," this week, if the gradual recession of the American soap opera also has something to do with younger women feeling a bit more free to dream, these days. Oh, I'm not saying that our freedom isn't, at times, illusory - little girls may now plausibly dream of being the President of the United States, but not a one of us has gotten there yet. But the feeling that we could - that is very real. And suddenly a life of lounging on couches in fine jewelry seems less interesting to us than it might have been to our forebears, because the horizon is wider, and because we spend less time feeling trapped in the home. If we are there, it is because we feel we have chosen it, not because it seems like the default option in a world where no one gets what they want.
Maybe I'm projecting because I am the daughter of a mother who was not altogether happy at home, of course. But there is something both touching and melancholy about the monotony of watching these shows, day in and day out, and more and more it strikes me that I'm glad to be away from it.
Do you watch soap operas? Do your moms? Why do you think no one is watching them anymore?
Image via Mike Licht at Flickr on a Creative Commons license.
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